Jan 19, 2011 4:24pm
Re: Boycott the box?
How Celebs Make A Living After DeathCBS - this piece was broadcast on 60 Minutes
This story was first published on Sept. 27, 2009. It was updated on Jan. 6, 2011
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Michael Jackson's first new studio album in nine years is number five on the Billboard 200, and tops the R&B charts. It's just part of the reason he earned $275 million last year. Not a bad living for a performer who died a year and a half ago, a half a billion dollars in debt. Since his death, Jackson has had a successful concert film, been given a new seven-year, $250 million contract with Sony, and seen his career resurrected. And he's not alone: decades after their demise, some departed stars continue to work on new projects and draw more income than they ever made while they were drawing breath. And there is a growing legion of agents and managers willing to represent them. As Steve Kroft first reported in 2009, dead celebrities can be just as lucrative as many live ones, and in some cases, a lot less trouble.
No other agent in the world represents more famous people than Mark Roesler: stroll down Hollywood Boulevard with him and he'll point out 62 of his clients who are immortalized with their own stars on the "Walk of Fame," stars such as Errol Flynn, Gloria Swanson, and Marilyn Monroe. His client list includes some of the biggest names of the 20th century: actresses like Ingrid Bergman and Bette Davis, baseball legends Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and singer Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. All have one thing in common besides their greatness, as Roesler explained: "We're a business agent for about 250 entertainment, sports, music and historical clients. But most of those are deceased."
"Dead," Kroft noted. "They're working stiffs."
"I guess you could say that," Roesler replied.
You could call Roesler's business a William Morris agency for the departed, the CAA of the DOA. The business is called "CMG" and it is headquartered far from the glitter of Hollywood in an office park on the fringes of Indianapolis, distinguished only for the orange wind sock for Roesler's helipad and his green Bentley. Inside is a multi-tiered office, lined with memorabilia from his departed clients. First stop, a suit worn by one of the Blues Brothers.
"I've represented the family of John Belushi. His widow, Judy, for almost 20 years," Roesler said.
It is all tastefully done and quiet as a morgue - a shrine of sorts for legends whose time on Earth has ended, but whose career still has a pulse strong enough to produce a stream of revenue. It is part of their legacy now and may be the ultimate show business compliment: they may be dead, but they still have an agent who is finding them work.
Asked what he does for them, Roesler told Kroft, "Well, it's really not that much different than if they were alive."
"You can't book them for personal appearances," Kroft pointed out.
"That's correct. We can't talk to them, we can't get their approval, but we'll get somebody's approval," Roesler explained.
His real clients are the heirs and estates of the dearly departed, who ultimately approve or reject the merchandising deals that CMG puts together.
"This is our basement, where we have kind of the archives of the past 27 years of the company. A lot of the different samples," Roesler explained during a tour of the office.
Products range from low-end tchotchkes like trashcans and handbags, to the mid-range items like "Marilyn Merlot."
"Rated as one of the best California Merlots, consistently," Roesler pointed out.
Also for sale are playfully prurient outfits inspired by the late pinup queen, Bettie Page. They are marketed as Halloween costumes, but Roesler says they seem to sell all year round. For example, there is a devil costume; whip, tail and horns included.
The product endorsements run the gamut from paraphernalia to the pinnacle of postmortem prestige. And Roesler has licensed more than 200 deals with the U.S. Postal Service.
"Here's a boxer, Jack Dempsey. Of course, Jessie Owens. One of the early stamps with Babe Ruth," Roesler explained. "Of course Jackie Robinson, a big part of the baseball series. A very successful stamp with Malcolm X."
They are also Roesler's clients. The agency has created Web sites for all its deceased clients and maintains and revives their fan clubs.
"We get at least 15 million hits a day that come through this building, for the different clients that we represent," Roesler told Kroft.
It is all part of a legal and entertainment niche that Roesler pioneered more than 25 years ago, after graduating from law school. Asked where the idea came from, Roesler said, "I thought it'd be nice to be an agent. But I really couldn't, being from Indiana, I really couldn't represent anybody famous because everybody living would have already been represented. So, really, the only opportunity was to represent deceased people. And I happened to notice that deceased personalities didn't have any protection."
Until Roesler came along in the early 1980s, a celebrity's right to control or profit from their good name was buried along with them. Their heirs had virtually no say in how their loved one's image or persona was used and no claim to any of the monies they generated. So Roesler set about to trying to change that in courts and in state legislatures around the country, helping to establish what is now recognized as the postmortem right to publicity.
"The right to publicity, I don't remember reading that in the Bill of Rights. Where does that come from?" Kroft asked.
"We have the right to prevent our name, our likeness, our image, our signature, our voice, from being used in some commercial fashion," Roesler explained.
Now in a number of states, that right passes on to the heirs, just like a house or a bag of old coins. And one of the first beneficiaries lived right down the road from Roesler in Fairmont, Ind. Marcus Winslow is the cousin of James Dean, who died in a car accident in 1955 after making just three movies. But the image of this rebel without cause has become a commercial icon. And 50 years after he crashed his Porsche, James Dean is still selling German cars and Italian shoes. But when Roesler first showed up at the family farm in 1982, Dean's heirs had no idea how big their Jimmy had become. Until Roesler showed up, the estate had gotten no money at all from James Dean.
"I don't think he would approve of perfect strangers making money off of his name and his likeness if his family didn't have something to say about it," Winslow said.
Winslow told Kroft his cousin made a lot more money since his death than when he was alive. "He'd be 77 years old. But he'll never be any older than 24," he said.
That image is frozen in time now and the success of Dean's post-career career has helped turn the marketing of dead celebrities into an $800 million-a-year industry. And advances in technology are creating more and more opportunities for the deceased. Personal appearances are still out of the question, but nearly anything else is becoming possible.
All it takes is a virtual set and some computer-generated imagery and you can revive long-dormant careers. To demonstrate, Kroft had a seemingly real but "virtual" interaction with the late comedienne Lucille Ball.
"Hello? Why don't you take one of your big hits and do it over for Ricky? Tailor it for him? 'It Happened on Noche?'" Lucy asked.
"I'm afraid not," Kroft replied.
"Well, it was just a thought," Lucy said. "The Ricardos of Wimpole Street?"
"Sorry Lucy," Kroft replied.
The heirs of Fred Astaire were able to re-launch his career selling electric brooms during halftime at a Super Bowl, and Elvis was able to sing a duet with Celine Dion on "American Idol."
Elvis, many think, is the perfect business model for the Michael Jackson estate. Elvis is the all-time king of afterlife income and still pulls in $50 million a year. But then Elvis is more than a dead celebrity. He is also a destination, at $28 a head to visit his Tennessee home, "Graceland." Graceland and the rest of the Elvis realm are now controlled by billionaire entertainment entrepreneur Robert Sillerman.
"And this modest - by today's standards - home, is the second most visited private residence in the United States. It's seen by 600,000 people a year," Sillerman explained.
Sillerman doesn't just represent Elvis, he owns Elvis: four years ago he spent $100 million to buy 85 percent of the rights to the Presley estate.
"Turned out to be a wonderful deal for us and for the family," Sillerman told Kroft.
With everyone now getting their 15 minutes fame on cable television and the Web, Sillerman doesn't think there will ever be another phenomenon quite like Elvis, who has turned out to be relatively recession proof. Some parts of his business are actually up.
Asked why, Sillerman said, "Well, I would love to say that it's because of our brilliant management…."
"You just did," Kroft pointed out, laughing.
"I said I would love to say it. I didn't say it was true. But the fact is that you can't manufacture the affection and the appeal that Elvis has," Sillerman said.
"He's dead," Kroft said.
Sillerman's response: "Are you sure?"
If he is not dead, a lot of people have wasted money on flowers. Then there are more than 5,000 Elvis-related products, and the Elvis impersonators.
"In 2002, the BBC did a report on occupations in the United States. And they said that according to the IRS, that over 84,000 people said that being an Elvis impersonator was their principal occupation," Sillerman said.
Sillerman is not the only billionaire in the dead celebrity business. The photo archive Corbis, owned by Bill Gates, has branched out from photo and film rights to representing the deceased people who appear in them. The agency, called "Greenlight," was run until recently by Martin Cribbs. Its eclectic clientele includes the Wright brothers, opera star Maria Callas and Steve McQueen, who has had a couple of breakout years selling Ford Mustangs and watches.
"What is the brand, what does the image say?" Kroft asked.
"I think that the image of Steve McQueen is really the anti-metro sexual. It's being sort of sophisticated and masculine without affectation," Cribbs said.
It's not clear whether the macho man would be happy modeling clothes for Dolce & Gabbana, but that decision now rests with his family. And Cribbs has a name for his deceased clients: "delebs," as in dead celebrities.
He said their biggest "deleb" is Albert Einstein. "He's our number one man."
"Bigger than Marilyn Monroe and James Dean?" Kroft asked.
"Huge, huge, the biggest in the world. Albert Einstein was Time Magazine's person of the century," Cribbs said.
Every 12-year-old in the world recognizes Einstein's picture and instantly equates it with genius. Einstein's beneficiary, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has earned millions and millions of dollars from Baby Einstein videos and Nike commercials featuring Kobe Bryant, executing a genius move as the late Princeton professor. The last time 60 Minutes saw Martin Cribbs, he was working up a campaign to resurrect the mildly scandalous career of Hollywood siren Mae West for a pitch to stationers and perfumers. Unlike agents for the living, he was at peace knowing that he didn't have to worry about her next movie bombing, or his client getting sent off to rehab or the headaches of having to deal personally with the notorious diva Maria Callas.
Asked if there are advantages to representing people who are dead, Cribbs said, "Absolutely. If you owned a cosmetics company and you have invested a million dollars in Maria Callas, I can guarantee you there's not gonna be any wardrobe malfunctions or embarrassing photographs getting out a limousine in front of La Scala without any underwear on. So that's a huge advantage."
Mark Roesler's stable of departed stars has grown in the past few months, adding, among others, Clark Gable, Dizzy Gillespie and Chris Farley. Robert Sillerman is no longer running Elvis Presley's career. He has resigned as CEO of his company, but he remains the company's and Presley's biggest shareholder.